Where a book is set seems like a detail – at least until you read the first one set in a place familiar to you. Then you understand how it matters, how it changes the reading experience. Of course, not every story is specific to a place, but since I moved abroad I have relished books set in the UK; Freya North was a treat!
It’s the familiarity that gives the book an additional dimension. Freya North’s characters didn’t just meet in a park, they were at Primrose Hill which for me holds a whole set of memories. When we know an area, we attach our own meaning to every place mentioned. Even simple things like reading Ibuprofen and Paracetamol instead of Advil and Tylenol remind you that you have wandered back from American to British books.
Just yesterday I finished a book set in San Francisco. It is a new experience when you can imagine the view from Fort Mason, you know how far it is to Joe’s Crab Shack on Fisherman’s Wharf – and how good the food is there. It gives a book a new dimension.
Places are partly sentimental. When Sonja Yoerg received the galleys of her first novel, House Broken, she distributed them all around the country. In a blog, she explained how she went about doing it:
It would have been simple to give them away to friends, but the truth is they are part of the marketing.
So one went to her local bookshop to go round the local paper as well. Some went to twitter acquaintances.
And to choose between all the bookshops in America, she sent them home; some went to California, to her first home and to the places the book is set in.
And one went to her home town in Vermont.
Books have sentimental value and that’s why it affects us when we know where something is set. The characters come to life because they are walking the same streets we walk and shop in the same mall or go to the same beach. It suddenly is not a made up world but rather a possible real life story in a familiar world.
That’s why I like to look in the Local Author section in book shops. Most shops have a shelf for authors from the area or books set locally. Recently in Yukon I found books on sled dogs and moving to the Yukon wilderness. And having experienced the Arctic conditions for a week, I have a new understanding of what those books are about.
I will be doing the same when I head to the States next week. On my East Coast trip I will be making stops in New York City, Boston (for a Sonja Yoerg book signing!), Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Niagara Falls so look out for local authors and stories in the upcoming weeks.